Birds with Sky Mirrors

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

29/02/2012 - 01/03/2012

New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012

Production Details

Globally-acclaimed and created by one of New Zealand’s greatest living artists, this urgent and provocative dance work returns home for its New Zealand premiere.

On the Pacific island of Tarawa, Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio took an encounter with birds flying with glittering pieces of plastic waste in their beaks as the vision to create this extraordinary and epic work.

Hailed by the French newspaper Le Figaro as an artist who will be one of the greats alongside the legendary Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham, Lemi Ponifasio’s style is a distinctive language of stage imagery: poetic, stark, hypnotic, and taut with concentration. Dancers seem to float across a darkened stage, their movements, brief and sharp like animals or birds, executed with masterful precision. They appear to be one with the oppressive space surrounding them.

Co-produced by a host of international presenters, Birds With Skymirrors is a timely reflection of our connection to the Earth and our incredible power to protect or destroy what surrounds us.


Production  MAU

Co-Production  Théâtre de la Ville (Paris), Theater der Welt 2010 RUHR, spielzeit’europa Berliner Festspiele, Wiener Festwochen, KVS Brussels, Holland Festival, Mercat de les Flors, DeSingel Antwerp, New Zealand International Arts Festival

Tickets: $38-$68. Bookings 0800 TICKETEK (842 538)

More information

Performers: Ioane Papalii, Teataki Tamango, Kelemete Fu’a, Arikitau Tentau, Tebau Utiata, Maereke Teteka, Gerard Tatireta, Kasina Campbell, Rosie TeRauawhea Belvie, Tuirina Wehi, Ofati Tangaroa, Tiui Elisara

1 hr 30 mins

Review: Birds with Sky Mirrors

Review by Jennifer Shennan 12th Mar 2012

A colossal diagonal beam dissects the stage. From dark shadows on either side, cautious performers emerge into pockets of light, holding sculptural poses, moving minimally, as an excerpt of Douglas Lilburn’s Soundscape with Lake and River is introduced. Later music includes Richard Nunns playing taonga puoro.

Helen Todd’s dramatic lighting allows Lemi Ponifasio’s choreographic concept its measured pace, unfolding slowly. One I-Kiribati man alternates with one Maori woman in sustained solo passages suggesting creation. Five more men and two more women will soon swell the numbers.

Movements sourced from I-Kiribati men’s traditional dances include the distinctive foot scuttling that propels them both forward and backward at lightning speed. Toes are lifted up from the flat foot, in a kind of echo to the tremoring fingers from outstretched arms. In silhouette these become the wingtip feathers of a frigate bird as it navigates its way around the Pacific.

Read the complete review


Make a comment

Threnody, lament, plea for humanity

Review by Lyne Pringle 01st Mar 2012

Birds with Sky Mirrors is  lament,  dreamscape,  threnody, requiem,  moonscape, a conference of birds, a ceremony of circumstance, the last dance on earth, the final gasp, a challenge, a karanga, an ancient futuristic ritual, a plea for humanity. It is slow butohesque deliberate and transporting; epic in scale, scope and ambition. Measured, meticulous, provocative, and powerful, Lemi Ponifasio takes between his teeth the dilemma of climate change and shakes it with dignified strength; lion like.

In the beginning, rumble, noise, electronica, blackness, gloom, a slanting monolith is revealed and three Perspex screens. Eyes strain to find images before the light cascades and caresses flesh in a love letter from light genius Helen Todd. The sight is tantalised. A headless writhing priest transforms into a floating seaweed human falling backwards towards destiny, while the light traces his traditional tattoos. Dripping electronic sound including Douglas Lilburn’s Soundscape with Lake and River, it mixes with taonga puoro played by Richard Nunns to accompany the dancer as he becomes almost Balinese with beautiful articulate hand gestures.

A woman begins, audacious, almost naked in high heels with cold stare and belts out a raucous, breasts erect, karanga; irreverent, sexualised, surprising, confusing. Shattering kaupapa, this work creates its own genre and melds the cultures of the Pacific into a primordial ocean of its liking; one that suits the purposes of the choreographer first and foremost. 

 Mysterious male figures return again and again to map and glide the space and conjure forth invocations. They arrive against screens full of big bang static, performing precise arm patterns whilst their feet move quickly underneath in tiny heel led steps.

Punctuations with the hands and flickering fingers are magnified by head movements reminiscent of the traditional dances of Kiribati: flock, convocation, concordance, in assured mesmeric choreographic patterns.  A projected pelican flaps caught in leaked oil. A relentless soundtrack builds to a cacophony of desperate voices before morphing into the soundscape of man’s first venture to the moon.  The watcher is compelled by sound, image, light and the physicality of the performers.

The powerful set evokes Hotere and Cuthbert; darkness duets with strips of fluorescent light.

Layer after layer is placed and peeled, choreographic poems advance from the murk at the back of the stage then recede; the stage space is breathing, the theatre becomes the ribs of a pulsating agitating body.  Beautiful use of foreground and background as bodies are transfigured and made strange.

The women in the piece are startled; caught in an extended pukana, rising, falling and gliding under incredible lighting. 3 Graces in elegant black dresses, floating in a nightmare, casting spells with their furious pois: genuinely frightening, truly weird and disquieting – we squirm almost palpably pushed away from the stage. This is the heart of the work.

A massive change of dynamic jolts us back to a surging male chorus caught in distress. Heads thrashing rolled back in uncertainty as the pelican flaps closer to final breath, there is a sense of chaos and a lack of order out of which a bird figure Hammondesque moves across the back of the space.

We return again and again to repeated movement patterns by a chorus of stunning male dancers, meticulous in their unison.  In a line at the front of the stage they perform a seated prayer dance with exquisite gestures and pauses. The piece could end here but it goes on.  This pace and repetition is not to everyone’s taste as the audience becomes restless in the last 15 minutes.

A section with large pois sprinkling the stage with powder, the Dust of the Ancestors, takes a very long time until we are left with the male chorus singing in gorgeous harmony then suddenly disappearing.

The performers in Mau Company are magnificent, utterly focussed, committed, almost bionic humans, gliding through a last ditch shamanic effort to alert the watcher to the message as a the pelican still tries desperately to escape and survive. It dies.

Where is the challenge in this work directed? What does the choreographer recommend we do? Where is the new narrative that will carry us out of this ‘hopeless’ situation?

The programme notes for the last scene offer ascendance and a small glimmer of hope in the words of a final prayer.

This immaculate, sophisticated dance/theatre/ritual has been honed in the concert halls of Europe, to then alight in Aotearoa brought on the wings of a bird fuelled by fossil fuels.  Taking civic responsibility, did Mau offset their travel with carbon credits?


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council